The Disappearance of Man

Among the many cherished recollections that I have retained of the years I spent in the United States, one remains outstanding because it is associated with what, due to my inexperience, appeared to me as something of a discovery. Indeed, it embodies for me to this day the unfathomable wealth and mystery of the city of New York.

This apparent discovery took place quite casually one day on lower Broadway, when I stumbled upon a bookstore which specialized in second-hand government publications and where could be bought for two or three dollars apiece most of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

I can hardly describe my emotion at this find. That these sacrosanct volumes, in their original green and gold bindings, representing most of what will remain known about the American Indian, could actually be bought and privately owned, was something I had never dreamed of. To my mind, they belonged rather to the same irredeemable past as the beliefs and customs of which they spoke. It was as though the civilization of the American Indian had suddenly come alive through the physical contact that these contemporary books established between me and their time. I felt somewhat akin to a sixteenth-century scholar who, finding in what must have corresponded to our second-hand bookstores, old manuscript copies of the works of Homer, Plato, or Virgil, is struck by the evidence that these great men had actually existed since someone had seen and transcribed their written word. Although my financial resources were less than scant and three dollars represented all I had to spend on food for the same number of days, this sum seemed negligible when it could pay for one of those marvelous publications, more alluring to the eye than any costly art books, such as Mallery’s Pictographs, Matthew’s Mountain Chant, Fewkes’s Hopi Katcinas, or such treasure troves of knowledge as Stevenson’s Zuni Indians, Boas’s Tsimshian Mythology, Roth’s Guiana Indians, and Curtin and Hewitt’s Seneca Legends.

Thus it happened that volume after volume and at the cost of some privations. I built up an almost complete set (there is still one volume missing) of the Annual Reports 1 to 48, which belong to the “great period” of the Bureau of American Ethnology. At that time I was far from imagining that a few months later I would be invited by the Bureau to become a contributor to one of its major undertakings: the seven-volume Handbook of South American Indians.

Notwithstanding this close association and the years that have since elapsed, the work of the Bureau of American Ethnology has lost for me none of its glamor, and I still feel toward it an admiration and respect which are shared by innumerable scholars the world over. Since it so happens that in the same year that marks the 200th Anniversary of James Smithson, the life of the Bureau has come to an end (though its activities are carried on under a new guise), the time may be fitting to pay tribute both to the memory of the founder of the Smithsonian Institution and to the Bureau which has been one of its greatest achievements and certainly a unique one of its kind.

EVER SINCE IT WAS FOUNDED in 1879 (which, incidentally, meant the emancipation of ethnology from geography and geology with which it had until then been merged), not only did the Bureau avail itself fully of the amazing opportunity provided by the presence of scores of native tribes at a few hours or days travel from the great cities, but also, as a distinguished anthropologist, Dr. Godfrey Lienhardt, puts it in a recent book* : “The accounts of custom and culture published by the Bureau compare in thoroughness and quality of reporting with modern ethnographic studies.” We are thus primarily indebted to the Bureau for instituting standards of scholarship that still guide us, even though we but rarely succeed in attaining them.

Above all, the collection of native texts and factual observations contained in the forty-eight major Reports and certain of the subsequent ones, in the two hundred or so Bulletins and in the Miscellaneous Publications, is so impressive that, despite the use they have been put to for nearly a century, it is safe to say that only the surface has been scratched. This being the case, one can only wonder at the neglect in which this invaluable material has temporarily fallen; as if the far less rich material with which we must content ourselves concerning the beliefs and customs of Greece and Rome were not still laden with as yet unexploited and occasionally unnoted data!

The day will come when the last primitive culture will have disappeared from the earth, compelling us to realize only too late that the fundamentals of mankind are irretrievably lost. Then, and for centuries to come, as happened in the case of our own ancestral civilizations, hosts of scholars will devote themselves to reading, analyzing, and commenting on the publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, which preserve so much more than has been preserved of other bygone cultures (not to mention the unpublished manuscripts placed in the Bureau’s custody). And if ever we succeed in enlarging our narrow-minded humanism to make it include each and every expression of human nature, thereby, perhaps, ensuing to mankind a more harmonious future, it is to undertakings such as those of the Bureau of American Ethnology that we shall owe it. However, nothing could be further from my mind than the notion that the work of the Bureau belongs to the past. I believe, on the contrary, that all of us, together with its legal successor, the Office of Anthropology, should seek in these achievements a living inspiration for the scientific task ahead of us.

IT HAS BECOME THE FASHION in certain circles to speak of anthropology as a science on the wane, on account of the rapid disappearance of its traditional subject matter: the so-called primitives. Or else it is claimed that in order to survive, anthropology should abandon fundamental research and become an applied science, dealing with the problems of developing countries and pathological aspects of our own society. I should not want to minimize the obvious interest of these new researches, but I feel nevertheless that there is, and will remain for a long time to come, much to be done along the more traditional lines. It is precisely because the so-called primitive peoples are becoming extinct that now, more than ever, their study should be given absolute priority.

And it is not too late for hundreds of anthropologists to set to work. As early as 1908, almost sixty years ago, Sir James Frazer, in his inaugural lecture at Liverpool University, stated that classical anthropology was nearing its end. What have we witnessed instead? Two great wars, together with scientific development, have shaken the world and destroyed physically or morally a great many native cultures. But this process, however disastrous, has not gone in one direction entirely. The First World War gave rise indirectly to Malinowski’s new anthropology by obliging him to share the life of the Trobriand Islanders in perhaps a more durable and intimate manner than he might otherwise have done. And as a consequence of the Second World War, anthropologists were given access to a new world: the New Guinea highlands, with a population of 600,000 to 800,000 people whose specific institutions are now changing our traditional outlook on many theoretical problems. Likewise, the establishment of the new Federal Capital of Brazil and the building of roads and aerodromes in remote parts of South America have led to the discovery of small tribes in areas where no native life was thought to exist.

Of course, these opportunities will be the last, and there is no future ahead. Moreover, the compensation they afford is small indeed, compared with the high rate of extinction afflicting primitive tribes the world over. There are about 40,000 natives left in Australia as opposed to 250,000 at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most, if not all of them, hunger-stricken and disease-ridden, threatened in their deserts by mining plants, atom bomb test grounds, and missile ranges. Between 1900 and 1950, over ninety tribes have been wiped out in Brazil; instead of a hundred tribes there are now barely thirty still living in a state of relative isolation. During the same period, fifteen South American languages have ceased to be spoken. Scores of similar examples could be given.

YET, THIS IS NO REASON to become discouraged. It is undoubtedly true that we have less and less material to work with. But anthropological methods and procedures having made considerable progress in the meantime, we are able to compensate to some extent for this diminishing volume by putting it to better use, thanks to our greater theoretical and factual knowledge and more refined techniques of observation. If I may put it this way, we have not much left to work with, but we will manage to “make it last.” We have learned how to look for the cultural “niches” in which traditional lore finds refuge and where it offers the strongest resistance to the impact of civilization: language, kinship, ethnobotany, ethnozoology, and the like.

But although the physical disappearances of populations that remained faithful till the very end to their traditional way of life do, indeed, constitute a threat to anthropology, curiously enough a more immediate threat comes from an evolution that has been taking place in such parts of the world as Asia, Africa, and the American Andes, which also used to be considered as falling within the realm of anthropological studies. These regions were always highly populated and they show no signs of decreasing. Quite the contrary, physically speaking, the subject matter is still there, as rich as ever, if not richer still. The new threat to our studies is not then so much of a quantitative as of a qualitative nature, and this proves to be doubly true. In the first place, these large populations are changing fast, and their culture is resembling more and more that of the Western World. Like the latter, it tends to fall outside the field of anthropology. But this is not all, for the mere fact of being subjected to ethnographical investigation seems distasteful to these peoples. By studying the ways in which their old beliefs and customs differed from our own, we may seem to them to be granting to these differences an absolute status and conferring upon them a more enduring quality.

CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY thus finds itself in a paradoxical situation. For it is out of a deep feeling of respect toward cultures other than our own that the doctrine of cultural relativism was evolved; and it now appears that this doctrine is deemed unacceptable by the very people on whose behalf it was upheld. Meanwhile, those ethnologists who favor unilinear evolutionism find unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialization, and prefer to look at themselves as temporarily backward rather than permanently different.

Hence the distrust in which traditional anthropology is held nowadays in some parts of Africa and Asia. Economists and sociologists are welcome, while anthropologists are, at best, tolerated, and from certain areas they are simply banned. Why perpetuate, even in writing, old usages and customs which are doomed to die? The less consideration and attention they receive, the faster they will disappear. And even if they do not disappear, it is better not to mention them lest the outside world realize that one’s culture is not as fully abreast of modern civilization as one deludes oneself in believing it to be. There have been periods in our own history when we too have yielded to the same delusion, only to find ourselves struggling to regain balance after eradicating so recklessly the roots that held us back to our past. Let us hope that this dire lesson will not be lost on others. The question is, in effect: What can we do to keep it from being lost? Is there a way of making peoples realize that they have a tremendous responsibility toward themselves and toward mankind as a whole, which is not to let perish, before it has been fully recorded, the past which it is their unprecedented privilege to experience on a par with their incipient future?

The suggestion has been made that in order to render anthropology less distasteful to its former human raw material, it will suffice to reverse the roles and occasionally allow ourselves to be “ethnographized” by those for whom we were once solely the ethnographers. In this way, each in turn will get the upper hand. And since no one will be in a permanently privileged position, no one will have cause to feel inferior to anyone else. At the same time, we shall get to know more about ourselves as we are seen through the eyes of others; and human knowledge in general will derive an evergrowing profit from this reciprocity of perspective.

Well-meant as it undoubtedly is, this solution appears to me naive and unworkable. It assumes that the problems involved in the great confrontation now taking place between Western culture and the rest of the world are as simple and superficial as those of children unaccustomed to play together, whose quarrels can be settled by making them follow the elementary rule: “Let me play with your dolls and I will let you play with mine.” To arrive at an understanding among people who are not merely estranged from one another by their physical appearances and their peculiar ways of life, but also stand on an unequal footing to one another, is a different question altogether.

ANTHROPOLOGY IS NOT a dispassionate science like astronomy, which springs from the contemplation of things at a distance. It is the outcome of an historical process which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is daughter to this era of violence: Its capacity to assess more objectively the facts pertaining to the human condition reflects, on the epistemological level, a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treated the other as an object.

A situation of this kind cannot be soon forgotten, even less erased. It is not because of its mental endowments that the Western world alone has given birth to anthropology. This was rather a consequence of the fact that exotic cultures, treated by us as mere things, could be studied, accordingly, as things. We did not feel concerned by them; we cannot avoid the fact that they now feel concerned about us. Between our attitude toward them and their attitude toward us, there is and can be no parity.

Therefore, if native cultures are ever to look at anthropology as a legitimate pursuit, and not as a sequel to the colonial era or that of economic domination, it cannot suffice for the players simply to change camps while the anthropological game remains the same. Anthropology itself must undergo a deep transformation in order to carry on its work among those cultures it was intended to study because they lacked a written record of their past history. This, however, it will achieve in an altogether different way, since instead of making up for this absence of recorded history through the application of special methods, the aim will be to fill it in. Whenever practiced by members of the culture which it endeavors to study, anthropology loses its specific nature and becomes rather akin to archaeology, history, and philology. For inasmuch as anthropology is the science of culture as seen from the outside, it follows that the first concern of people made aware of their independent existence and of their originality would not be to observe from the outside the culture of their former masters, while allowing the latter to observe their own culture also from the outside. Instead they will claim the right to observe their own culture for themselves, and in the only effective way, that is, from the inside. The obvious conclusion is that anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish, in order to be born again under a new guise.

Anthropology is thus confronted with two tasks which would only prove contradictory if they were to be undertaken simultaneously in the same field. Whenever native cultures, though disappearing physically, have remained to some extent morally intact, anthropological research should be carried out along traditional lines and the means at its disposal increased to the utmost. And wherever the opposite situation prevails, that is, where populations have remained physically strong while their culture is rapidly veering toward our own, anthropology should agree to shift its goals. While being taken over progressively by scholars from the culture itself, it should adopt aims and methods similar to those which have proved fruitful for the study of our own culture since the Renaissance.

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, the Bureau of American Ethnology has had to face this two-fold necessity by reason of the peculiar situation of the American Indian. For the Indians were characterized by cultural remoteness and physical proximity, together with a tremendous will to survive, at least among some tribes, despite all the ordeals to which they had been subjected. Thus the Bureau was compelled from the start to act both ways: On the one hand, it conducted ethnographical surveys, the precision and rigor of which have set a standard that cannot be surpassed. On the other, it encouraged the natives themselves to become their own linguists, philologists, and historians. If the cultural riches of Africa, Asia, and Oceania are to be saved, it will only be on the condition that, following this example, we succeed in encouraging dozens (and they themselves hundreds) of such men as Francis La Flesche, son of an Omaha chief, James Murie, a Skidi Pawnee, George Hunt, a Kwakiutl, and many others, some of whom, like La Flesche and Murie, were on the staff of the Bureau.

When we consider that this was taking place more than fifty years ago, we can only marvel at such maturity and foresight, and hope for the extension, on a world scale, of what a handful of resolute and enlightened men and women knew should be done in the wide field of American studies. And indeed, they did it in such an efficient way that after less than a century of effort on their part, a great deal more has been preserved of the native cultures of North America than all we know of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. This does not mean that we should be content merely to add similar material to that which is already available. So considerable an amount of material remains to be saved that the urgency of the task risks making us overlook the present evolution of anthropology, which, as it increases in quantity, is also changing in quality. Recognition of this fact should make us more confident of our studies in the future and it can be verified in many ways.

To begin with, new problems have arisen which can still be solved, even though they have received only scant attention thus far. It is worth noting, for instance, the disdain with which anthropologists have until recently neglected to study the relationship between the amount of work involved in planting a crop and the yield of that crop, as well as the variability of the yield. Yet one of the keys to the understanding of the social and religious importance of yams, which is so striking throughout Melanesia, can probably be found in the remarkable variability of the yield. The farmer who is exposed to the risk of harvesting far less than he actually needs, must plant far more in order to be reasonably certain to have enough. Conversely, if the harvest is plentiful it can so widely exceed expectations that to consume it all becomes impossible; this leaves no other use for it than competitive display and the social presentation of food to others. In cases such as the above, as in many others, we must learn to translate, according to several different codes, phenomena that we have been apprehending so far according to one or two codes only, and thus render the observed phenomena a great deal more significant.

A wide system of equivalents could then be established between the truths of anthropology and those of neighboring sciences which have been progressing at a similar pace: I am thinking not only of economics, but of biology, demography, sociology, psychology, and logic, for it is through a number of such adjustments that the originality of our field will best appear.

THERE HAS BEEN MUCH DISCUSSION lately as to whether anthropology belongs among the humanities or among the natural sciences. In my opinion, this is a false problem: A unique characteristic of anthropology is that it does not lend itself to this kind of classification. It has the same subject matter as history, but lacking the perspective of time, cannot use the same methods. Its own methods tend rather towards those of sciences not devoted to the study of man, though they are oriented to the study of events which take place during the same span of time, like anthropology itself. As in every other scientific undertaking, these methods aim at discovering invariant properties beneath the apparent particularity and diversity of the observed phenomena.

Does this commitment to scientific method deter anthropology from achieving a humanistic and historical outlook? Quite the opposite is true. Of all the branches of our discipline, physical anthropology is probably the closest to the natural sciences. But for this very reason, it is worth noting that by refining its methods and techniques, it has been getting ever closer to, not farther from, a humanistic outlook.

For the physical anthropologist to look for invariant properties traditionally meant to look for factors devoid of adaptive value. From the presence or absence of these it was hoped that something could be learned, for example, about the racial divisions of mankind. Our colleagues are less and less convinced, though, that any such factors devoid of adaptive value really do exist. The sickle-cell gene, formerly held to be one, can no longer be considered in that light if, as is now generally accepted, it carries a certain measure of immunity to malaria. However. as Dr. Frank B. Livingstone has brilliantly demonstrated (American Anthropologist, vol. 60, no. 3, 1958, pp. 533-62) what appears as an irretrievable loss from the point of view of long-range conjectural history can be viewed as a definite gain from that of history as historians conceive it, that is, as a discipline which is both concrete and works at close range. For because of the adaptive value of the sickle-cell gene, a map showing its distribution throughout the African continent would make it possible for us to read, as it were, African history in the making. The knowledge thus obtained could be correlated with that acquired from language and other cultural maps. Therefore the same invariant properties which have vanished where they were sought for originally, reappear at a deeper functional level. Whereas they seem to grow less informative, they are turning out to be more meaningful.

THIS REMARKABLE PROCESS is now taking place everywhere in our field. Dr. George M. Foster has recently given new life to what most of us held to be an exhausted question: the origin of the potter’s wheel (Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 15, no. 2, p. 99-117). This he achieved by pointing out that an invention is neither simply a new mechanical device, nor a material object that can be described objectively, but rather a manner of proceeding which may avail itself of a number of different devices, some of them crude and others more elaborate. In the field of social organization, I myself have tried to show that kinship systems should not be described by their external features such as the number of terms they use, or the way they classify, merge, and distinguish all possible ties between individuals. If we use such methods, all we can hope to obtain is a long list of types and subtypes which will appear simply as meaningless objects. But if we try to find out how they work, that is, what kind of solidarity they help to establish within the group, their apparent multiplicity can be reduced to a few basic and meaningful principles.

Similarly, in the field of religion and mythology, an attempt can be made to reach beyond external features, which can only be described and arbitrarily classified by each scholar according to preconceived ideas. Such an attempt shows that the bewildering diversity of mythical motifs can be reduced to a very few number of schemes, each of which appears endowed with a specific operational value. At the same time there emerge for each culture certain sets of transformation rules which make it possible to include in the same group myths previously held to be markedly different.

These examples, chosen among many others, tend to show that anthropology’s traditional problems are assuming new forms while none of them can be said to be exhausted. The distinctive feature of anthropology, and that which singles it out among other human sciences, is that it looks at man from the very point where, at each period of history, it was considered that anything man-like could not conceivably exist. During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this point was set up too close to make observation possible, since each culture or society was inclined to locate it on their neighbor’s doorstep. And within a century or so, when the last native culture will have disappeared from the Earth and our only interlocutor will be the electronic computer, it will have become so remote that we may well doubt whether the same kind of approach will deserve to be called “anthropology” any longer. Between these limits lies the only chance that man ever had or will have to look at himself in the flesh while still remaining a problem unto himself, though one he knows can be solved since it is already certain that the outer differences among cultures conceal a basic unity.

LET US SUPPOSE for a moment that astronomers should warn us that an unknown planet was nearing the Earth and would remain for twenty or thirty years at close range, afterwards to disappear forever. In order to avail ourselves of this unique opportunity, neither effort nor money would be spared to build telescopes and satellites especially designed for the purpose. Should not the same be done at a time when one-half of mankind, only recently acknowledged as such, is still so near to the other half that, except for men and money, its study raises no problem—although it will soon become impossible forever? If the future of anthropology could be seen in this light, no study would appear more urgent and no other could compete with it in importance. For native cultures are disintegrating faster than radio-active bodies, and the Moon, Mars, and Venus will still be at the same distance from the Earth when that mirror which other civilizations still hold up to us will have so receded from our eyes that, however costly and elaborate the instruments at our disposal, we may never again be able to recognize and study this image of ourselves which will be lost and gone forever.

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    Social Anthropology, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 24